Monday, February 14, 2005

Caribs of Dominica to be Portrayed as Cannibals in Disney Film

According to a recent report from the BBC News (Monday, 14 February, 2005 -- see:, Disney is planning to shoot a sequel to "Pirates of the Caribbean" in Dominica, in which the Caribs of Dominica will be featured as cannibals.

The plan is being vigorously protested by the new Chief of the Carib Territory, Charles Williams, who came to office in July of 2004.

Five centuries after the beginning of European colonialism in the Caribbean, we are still witnessing very crude attempts at branding aboriginals for the sake of profit. Previously, branding someone a "cannibal" would be sufficient justification under various royal decrees for the enslavement of such "fierce" and "savage" people, that is, assuming they were even recognized as human beings. Continuing this tradition of imperialism, it is now hoped by Disney, apparently, that they can continue to reap revenues by trading in this dated imagery.

At a time when the leader of the world's biggest and most arrogant military superpower feels free to proclaim that the U.S. is engaged in a struggle against "barbarism", waged by those in the "civilized world", this should not be too shocking. "Space" for this renewal of imperialist ideology has been opened up from the top down in American society, providing some of the strongest legitimation for these rehashed assaults on the "Non-Western Other".

The same brush that would tar the peoples of Iraq, Iran and North Korea, would eventually tar all other representatives of some sort of primordial barbarism, including indigenous peoples. It is more ironic than ever, at a time when Ward Churchill is being persecuted with the willing complicity of some American Indian leaders, that some of these same leaders were openly supportive of Bush's plans for invading Iraq, and heralded American Indian troops in Iraq as heroes to be celebrated. The glaring parallels between 1492 and the invasion of Iraq were completely lost on them. Instead, we are asked not to protest a war for fear of "hurting the feelings" of the parents of these these troops took part in the pummeling of a half-starved nation that had just clawed its way through more than a decade of genocide.

That Disney Corp., should dress up this history of unforgivable European cruelty in a manner that its audiences might see as funny and entertaining only adds more evidence to how far backwards we have let public discourse slide.

Pirates of the Caribbean, at the very least, should be protested and boycotted.


Fons said...

I too saw the story about the Caribs on the BBC web site but I had a different reaction.

Western imperialism benefits and continues to benefit from racist depictions of non western peoples, and sometimes westerners when it is in a narrow nationalist interest. Disney and Hollywood in general have benefitted financially by playing on such chauvinism. But just because Hollywood is potraying an act of Canibalism does not neccesarily mean that the film is racist. So why call for a boycott before you have even seen the film?

Eating people has a long tradition in human societies. We may not take part in human barbacoa these days but the practice was not out of the ordinary for many and if I am in the Andes and my plane goes down.... Having this understanding in mind; just by presenting flesh eaters on the screen does not neccesarily mean that said presentation is racist. Let's see the film or the screen play before we call for correction or call for censorship.


Dan Brown said...

Mr. Forte is justified in his complaint that Caribs have been, and were, unjustly labeled as cannibals solely as a justification under Spanish law and Church law to remove their human rights and allow them to be enslaved or conquered without compensation or legal restriction. The early colonial powers in the Caribbean were very concerned about Church law and the "cannibal" designation allowed for an official dehumanization of the Caribs. Conversely the French saw the abuse of the Spanish and created an official policy of recognition of indigenous rights and allowed intermarriage of French and indigenous peoples to secure the right to explore the New World. The French formulated this policy, not out of a love for natives but as an official justification for their entry into the riches of the Caribbean after the treaty of Torsedillas (1494)had divided the New World between Spain and Portugal. Francis I of France was married to a niece of the Pope and in 1533 obtained an interpretation of Tordesillas that required permanent occupation, a requirement to spread the Catholic Faith to the indigenous, and indigenous acceptance of the colonizer. Out of these efforts arose France's vaunted humanity towards the indigenous that wavered as needs varied. At times France alternately allowed and forbade marriage and alternately respected and sold into slavery captive natives, depending upon their needs. But the point with all of this is that it was all in response to an unjust manipulation and abuse of indigenous peoples to allow unfettered exploitation of the riches of the New World. The cannibal identity that Disney hopes to label the caribs with is another gross representation that tries to use horribly innacurate imagery to financially benefit from using the Caribs. The Caribs are real people with a real history. What if Disney tried to open a German exhibit that portrayed Germans as bloodthirsty "Huns" that were seen as a people intent on creating a master race and dominating the world. Imagine that reaction. Or maybe a US "Redneck" exhibit that showed Americans as KKK pointy hat wearing racists intent on lynching people of color, plus Jews and Catholics. Imagine that reaction. But somehow, representing the beleagured Caribs as flesh eating savages for family entertainment has value? Disney had better get ready for the protest signs and marchers on opening day.

Dan Brown, Student
Ph.D. program- Preservation (history/architecture) I'm focusing on colonial Caribbean.
Tulane University
New Orleans

Fons said...

Have we seen the film? Did Caribs eat people (in the film or in actuality-I don't know either answer)? Two important questions that need to be answered before I write a letter or start painting signs.

Again, imperialism demonizes and uses racist imagery for its own ends all the time. Let's expose and protest this but not just in a reactionary way assume the potrayal of flesh eating is going to be racist without seeing the film.


Maximilian C. Forte said...

In response to anton:

You seem to be especially concerned about our first seeing the film. That would have to mean paying into Disney's very fat coffers and offering them our financial support so that they can continue to expand the capital base underpinning their power.

What do you expect to see about cannibalism in the film that would make you think the depiction was a positive one? Would the Caribs have to be shown eating their victims with a knife and fork? I do not mean to be facetious, I just do not understand your comments.

I might also add that I did not call for censorship--Disney is free to show whatever it wants, no matter how offensive it may be. I, on the other hand, try my best not to be offensive toward whole groups of people--is that censorship? What I am urging is that people not show financial solidarity with Disney, just to see this tripe.

I cannot comprehend what Disney needs to do with this film that only cannibalism can help achieve. Nor do I think, contrary to your comments, that it is a simple reflection of the "fact" that cannibalism happened somewhere, some time, and I certainly do refute the notion that the practice was "ordinary" in the way you state it.

I think we need to be less naive about the (geo)political contexts in which these productions are shaped and projected. Showing Caribs as cannibals is indeed very well worn racism, hence the negative reaction from Chief of the Carib Territory. That this is to be filmed in Dominica itself is a direct insult to the Caribs.

I would urge readers to show solidarity with the Caribs--some of whom have in fact read the script already, so there is no mystery to them about what is to be shown--and not with Disney.

OscarTate said...

I am in total agreement with Anton here. In fact, I think we need more portrayals of cannibals in pop culture. It's about time we recognize that Disney and Hollywood are actually doing us a cultural service, exposing us to the enormous variety of the human experience. I'm sure that in depicting Caribs eating other people, Disney will demonstrate the same cultural sensitivity it showed in depicting the struggles of Pocahantas, and that little princess, Anastasia (Russian royalty being one of the most persecuted groups on Earth). And don't forget Mulan and Alladin!

Cultural imperialists, Bahh! These are the same folks who made "It's a Small World, After all," the beginnings of my (and I'm sure, countless others') political education as an internationalist. We should be thanking these corporations for spreading cultural understanding and delivering American standards of filmic drama (and action!) to the world. There's not just us in the world you know, and Disney helps us realize that! Disney and Hollywood are following in the hallowed footsteps of the PT Barnums of old; just like the old side shows and natural history museums, but in a less crude and more entertaining way, this movie will certainly expose whitebread Americans to human difference. Shame on those who would call for a boycott.

I'm tired of the Hollywood-haters, the Disney-haters -- those people who would only bring our culture down. Come on you guys, be positive! Movie-making is hard! Maybe if you dialogued with Disney, if you gave them a little POSITIVE feedback, and some constructive criticism, they would consider your point of view, but all this negative stuff just doesn't build bridges. People are people, everywhere. And that includes multi-national entertainment conglomerates using slave-made plastic toys in fast food restaurants to sucker little kids into nagging their parents to see the latest commodification of indigenous culture. The world is a beautiful mosaic and if we just learn to respect each other's differences, we can all get along. Disney is people too!

Karl Eklund said...

Here's a letter printed in The Vincentian:

Letter to the Editor
The Vincentian

It is generally known that Disney is set to start shooting Parts 2 & 3 of "Pirates of the Caribbean" in Domenica and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines this spring. Unfortunately, unlike the first part, this time Disney intends to work in the native peoples of these islands, the Caribs and "Black Caribs" or Garifuna.

According to Paul Lewis of the SVG Archaeological and Historical Society Disney executives insist that Caribs in Dominica be portrayed as cannibals. Adrian Fraser in his column in the Searchlight (quoting Carib Chief Charles Williams of Dominica) says that the scene will show Caribs roasting another Carib in the style of a barbecue. Evidently the Disney executives said the script cannot be changed.

That, of course, is nonsense. Scripts have been changed even with films in the can, if the change is necessary to market the film. And the easiest time to change a script is while it is just words on paper. What Disney doesn't understand is that a community that survived the attempted genocide by the British Empire is not likely to be fazed by a corporation that is dependent on popular approval.

Whether or not the Caribs roasted people, or even ate bits of them for ritual reasons, is, on the one hand, something for academics to argue about. On the other hand displaying it in a movie that is likely to be popular based on its predecessor is unnecessary promulgation of a racist myth for political purposes. Disney's researchers probably don't know that there is a distinction between "Caribs" and "Garifuna" or what that distinction signifies.

A minor change in the script in which the europeans BELIEVE the Caribs are cannibals and in which the roastee is a european colonist, while the central characters discover, at the climax, that the Yellow and Black Caribs are fierce freedom fighters defending their homes and independence, would not only be much more acceptable to Caribbean academics, but would be considerably more acceptable to audiences in the Caribbean diaspora and the non-melanin-deficient international market. And it would be a lot cheaper to change the script now, before any shooting, than to change the final cut after a lot of demonstrations.

There are lots of interesting questions about the Caribs that I will be discussing in future essays at [] and on the website at []. The Garifuna who survived attempted genocide by the British Empire are an inspiration to us all.

But it would be a useful thing if a lot of people showed that they care how the Garifuna and other aboriginal peoples are portrayed in big production movies. It is too late in the twentyfirst century to slander an ethnic group simply out of ignorance and greed.

Karl Eklund, Ph.D.
Villa, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines